A look back at the life and career of the jazz musician who popularized his genre around the world: Miles Davis
September 28, 1991: Death of Miles Davis
In 1987, Miles Davis accepted, perhaps reluctantly, an invitation to the White House for an awards ceremony. A somewhat unusual decision for the jazz musician known for his unwavering honesty, both towards himself and others. In his autobiography Miles he says that he showed up there at the call of Cicely Tyson, one of his many companions, out of respect for one of those named, a certain Ray Charles. Of course, nothing went as planned.
Miles Davis sits next to a woman described as a “politician” and doesn’t mince his words when she asks him why the United States neglects jazz so much. “Jazz is ignored here because the white people are desperate to take everything,” he whispers with his usual mucus. Shocked, her interlocutor asks, “What have you accomplished that’s so important?” His answer is even better: “Well, I changed the course of the music five or six times. »
While the statement may seem presumptuous at first, it’s difficult to prove him wrong given his incredible career. But that’s not the only reason Miles Davis is remembered – not by a long shot. He was one of the greatest and most influential trumpeters of the second half of the last century, certainly the most gifted and atypical. His albums (a selection of which Rolling Stone offers you here) are fabulous in more ways than one. The discovery of a Miles Davis album is like a real personal revolution, and many people compared the event to equally significant historical facts.
Change music history
Famous for both his unique playing and his ability to lead a band, Miles Davis has played with a list of musicians who simply speak for him: saxophonist John Coltrane, Julian “Cannonball” Adderly and Wayne Shorter, the Pianists Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, Philly drummers Joe Jones, Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette, guitarists John McLaughlin and John Schofield. Big names aren’t necessarily made for playing in bands – he himself knew not to cross the line and always insisted on playing with less flamboyant and perhaps more suitable artists.
Innovation has always been at the heart of jazz: Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker largely changed the genre and left their contemporaries far behind. With a few exceptions such as Coltane and Ornette Coleman, they were occasionally involved in the popularization of jazz. But when Miles Davis says he “changed the course of music five or six times,” that’s a whole different standard. And yes, he is talking about “music” and not just “jazz”.
Miles Davis’ career began at the heart of the first wave of jazz, with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillepsie and Thelonious Monk at the forefront. But very quickly the artist seemed to distance himself from his genre, especially with “Birth of the Cool”, a compilation in the form of an exchange of ideas between jazz and European classical music. In the ’60s and ’70s, Miles Davis didn’t hesitate to mix jazz, rock and funk, full of admiration for Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone.
Boundaries between genres are not only crossed, but above all pulverized. The work of Miles Davis redefines “art” and “pop art” and thus ends their fundamental opposition. At the time, critics and musicians who sought to maintain the established order were viewed as sectarians, disconnected from the social and musical realities of the time. Miles Davis couldn’t see them in the paintings – and we understand why.
Miles Davis acquires this confidence from birth. His real name was Miles Dewey Davis III, he was born on May 26, 1926 in Illinois. The son of a renowned dentist, he derives his fashion elegance from his mother, a gifted violinist and keyboardist accustomed to fur coats and diamonds.
Student by day, jazz musician by night
He grew up in East St. Louis, the scene of some of the most violent racial conflicts of the time in the United States. One of the most horrific events occurred in 1917, less than ten years before Miles Davis was born, and created a particularly tense climate in the city and the region.
It was in 1944 that Miles Davis discovered and fell in love with jazz during a concert by Billy Eckstine’s band with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillepsie in St. Louis. His life is changed forever. He is only 18 years old. He was already a fairly competent player and quickly replaced the band’s third trumpet player, who fell ill that same evening.
After two weeks of concerts in St. Louis, Miles Davis wants to go on tour, which his family strongly disagrees with. Nevertheless, he managed to convince them to send him to New York in September 1944 to study classical music.
A brilliant student by day, he developed his jazz playing in the city’s clubs by night. He recorded for the first time in 1945 with singer Rubberlegs Williams.
A time in which Charlie Parker also became Miles Davis’ occasional roommate, but also and above all his guru. Despite his already very high drug use, Charlie Parker never encouraged Miles Davis to take them, despite some rumors. On the other hand, cannabis (which he rarely smoked), heroin (one of his future addictions) and cocaine (which he used mainly towards the end of his life) eventually found their way into his life through other musicians. But that was without counting on the willpower of the jazz musician, for whom the devastating drugs could in no way take priority over his music. He stopped using heroin in 1954 before finally quitting alcohol and cocaine in the mid-1980s.
At the end of 1945, Miles Davis dropped out of Juilliard in New York and became a full-time trumpet player in Charlie Parker’s quintet. On August 14, 1947, he recorded for the first time under his own name, with Parker providing backing vocals and playing tenor saxophone instead of his usual alto saxophone. Among his early compositions, “Half Nelson” and “Milestones” stand out as particularly ambitious (even for Parker) and are still considered standards of modern jazz today.
Translated from English by Matthias Haghcheno
Rubber band, the lost album by Miles Davis, is available to listen from September 6, 2019 via Warner Music France. To listen, click here.